12 approaches that work


Merchandising is all about encouraging the sale of products. In the real world, it can include visual displays, product assortment and availability, and promotional activity – anything that will encourage shoppers to buy. Online the same rules apply, to which we can also add such factors as ease of checkout, product reviews, effective search and social media, writes Penelope Ody

1. Highlight bestsellers

Only 7% of IREU Top500 sites use bestseller ribbons (flash strips across the corner of product photographs declaring the item to be a top seller), and the practice is most widespread among Austrian, German and Lithuanian websites. Even here, however, many prefer to highlight top sellers either in pulldown menus, as with German furnishings specialist XXXL.

(xxxlshop.de), or signal the most popular (Beliebteste) when ordering search options as with Austrian cosmetics company, MeinDM. Another Austrian site, Weitbild, offering books, music and household goods, runs a stream of bestsellers on its website that changes each day.

Many of the IREU Top100 retailers, similarly put bestsellers on home pages: American Golf singles out bestselling golf balls and bags, while Polish site Empik has a home page column giving the top 10 “bestsellery” for each of the product categories that it sells. Click through and you reach listings of the top 100 sellers.

In an age when shoppers are often more concerned with keeping up to date with their peer group’s purchases than choosing something different for themselves, highlighting bestsellers is clearly an easy way to engage customers. Providing a top 100 seems a little excessive – especially if it involves searching through 10 pages of 10 items each. At peak times of the year, as in the run-up to Christmas, providing a daily list of “Unsere aktuellen Bestseller” (current bestsellers) may help sales.

2. Filter search

Allowing shoppers to filter search by brand, product type, size, price or other relevant parameters can help make the process quick, easy and accurate as possible. Around two-thirds of the IREU Top500 offer some sort of filtering, most usually by product type. Clothing and sportswear retailers tend to be the most specific. Dutch retailer Aktiesports.nl offers filter choices by brand, style detail (fit, neck finish, leg length, etc, depending on garment), material, colour and price; French fashion retailer Camaïeu, like many other clothing sites, offers a broad-brush selection of lines in pulldown menus, with further filtration by size, colour, price and style sub-category; while German clothing site, Zalando [IRDX RZAL], adds filters by occasion, pattern, discounts available, newness of product (“last month”, “last week”, “this week”) and season. Its approach may be a trifle excessive: selecting “business” for underwear, for example, produces some formidable navy blue items.

Consumer electronics companies also provide plenty of options. Search by brand on the Meletronics site, part of Switzerland’s Migros co-operative group, and users are given a choice of product categories for that label as well as direct links to the most popular lines currently being sold. Italy’s Media World – like Media Markt a subsidiary of the German Metro group – adds “availability” (“now”, “in three days”, “in six days”, “not available”) as well as the ability to specify particular relevant technical characteristics – such as memory size.

Striking the right balance between too many filtration factors and too few can be tricky. That’s especially true when clicking more than two or three options results in an extremely limited selection of products.

3. Consider a wishlist

Wishlists are popular with some customers – especially in the run-up to Christmas, and particularly if they can be accessed by those likely to take note and purchase a relevant gift. Making it obvious that saving items to a wishlist is possible also helps. Sites such as La Redoute [IRDX RLAR], Littlewoods [IRDX RLIW] and Decathlon [IRDX RDCA] all feature the ubiquitous heart with “wishlist” label among the top right-hand icons on their web pages.

Most wishlists require an account ID to log in and access, but French fashion site Morgan de toi allows access to the wishlist from Facebook, which suggests that “friends” may be enabled to access an individual’s “wants” when hunting for suitable presents.

4. Product reviews and ratings

More than half the UK retailers in the IREU Top500 study use product reviews, although they are far less common in parts of southern Europe. Amazon is, perhaps, the greatest exponent of reviews with items generating hundreds or even thousands of them. A quick scan through a few items on the site reveals that one particular type of tablet computer has more than 21,000 reviews – one wonders how many are likely ever to be read (or how many are generated by the company offering the device…). Significantly, it is quite difficult to find products with persistently bad reviews, which may suggest (a) that disliked products are rapidly delisted, (b) bad reviews are edited from the site or (c) most consumers only want to say good things about their purchases.

Product ratings are also popular, with around 40% of IREU Top500 retailers providing them. Some just give an average star rating based on a variable numbers of reviews but most, including Amazon and Bol.com, provide a breakdown so that it is possible to see the precise number of stars awarded by reviewers. At Amazon [IRDX RAMZ], star rating is also a search parameter.

Many shoppers admit to being guided by reviews and product ratings when it comes to selecting items, but retaining a reasonable number of balanced opinions rather than presenting a customer with several thousand eulogies may be best.

5. Offer a sensible alternative

Not everything a customer searches for may be available on a particular site so offering an alternative suggestion, as a sales assistant may do in a real-world store, is another aspect of merchandising.

Some 35% of IREU Top500 companies adopted this approach, although sometimes their suggestions can be a trifle wide of the mark. Search for “vetiver” – a relaxing essential oil used in cosmetics and aromatherapy – on The Body Shop site and see that there are zero results “but we found four results for reviver”. Try “diapers” at Boohoo and you are told that your term has been “corrected to zippers” and there are two results (one of them a “Hallowe’en vampire zipper face make-up kit”). In contrast, look for Harry Potter at Disney Store, and Mickey Mouse points out: “Sorry, the character you searched is not part of the Disney Family,” and provides a catalogue of those that are.

Obviously search engines do not have an endless vocabulary, but occasionally “Sorry we don’t sell those” and a list of bestsellers or popular items that you do provide can be more appropriate than second-guessing that the search term has simply been misspelt.

6. Don’t forget to keep up appearances

In peak periods, such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the run-up to Christmas, it is hardly surprising that many websites end up looking like the catalogue of a bargain-basement retailer. All too often, the need to maintain brand image seems to have been entirely forgotten among the shouty headlines declaring “up to 50% off” or “offer ends at midnight”, accompanied by endless postage-stamp size images of assorted merchandise. Boohoo [IRDX RHOO] at least made an effort by incorporating fashion imagery into its Cyber Monday clickthroughs – even if they took up its entire home page. Danish furniture retailer, JYSK, may have declared 25% off in a dominating banner on Cyber Monday, but scroll down the page and there were the usual stylish room set images to click through to relevant products.

While most preferred to stick with standard seasonal nomenclature, Marks & Spencer [IRDX RMAS] opted to call the annual cut-price occasion “Mrs Claus’ gifting weekend”, which enabled a more stylish home page than those dominated by black banners or discount declarations in massive type. The web is a visual medium and, just because there are bargains on offer, there is no need to forget the basic retail tenet of creating an attractive display.

7. Provide good product information

Whether shoppers buy online or in a store, many will do plenty of internet research beforehand. Not only will good product information ensure customers know what they’re buying and help reduce returns, but it can also improve their total experience – which is what good merchandising is all about. German specialist Baby-Markt is a good example, with highly detailed product specifications given for everything from car seats to bath toys.

Fashion retailer Boohoo has a box on each product page offering pull-down information on styling, product specification and care, delivery options and returns. Dutch clothing retailer Bristol has a similar neat box on each product page giving a full description of the item, maintenance tips, and delivery and return details. There is also a click through to check branch stock with a pop-up window allowing shoppers to specify size, colour and preferred branch for an immediate update on availability – just the sort of added extra that can encourage customers to call in at the high street rather than opting for home delivery with its higher cost to serve.

8. Make payment as easy as possible

Too many pages to click through or a need for complex registration in order to reach the checkout can become significant deterrents to completing a sale. In total, 295 of the IREU Top500 retailers required shoppers to register before checkout. Others, such as American Golf, also allow customers to checkout as a guest. While enforcing registration can help with future marketing and targeted promotions, it can be both irritating and unnecessary – especially when shopping for gifts at sites that a customer is unlikely to visit again.

On average, the IREU Top500 retailers manage checkout in 3.1 pages. In many geographies, the average is below three, suggesting that a number of sites in that market manage checkout in two pages. If a retailer’s site takes more than three pages, the company should probably redesign the checkout to meet customer expectations.

9. Recommend similar products…

In all, 71% (356) of the IREU500 retailers make recommendations of similar products during the purchasing process. Generally, these really are very similar items but in alternative colours or styles or at different price points. Dutch clothing retailer Bristol sticks to similar items: look at one anorak and the product page will include thumbnails of half-a-dozen more. In general, the similar products are higher priced – although not always. Boohoo is one where offering cheaper alternatives also occurs. Offering similar products at a higher price may encourage some shoppers to trade up. While providing cheaper alternatives might just encourage an additional purchase of something similar, it may also persuade a shopper to trade down to a less expensive item.

10. Match style to expectation

In the real world, visual merchandising is often key to success. Window displays attract interest and customers; and product positioning – even as basic as ragu sauce next to pasta – can encourage linked sales. Online, many sites appear to forget this essential aspect of retailing, leaving assorted product images to jostle for space on pages cluttered with promotional banners. That is no doubt fine if the site is promoting purely on price, but if the retailer aspires to offer an exciting and rewarding customer experience, shoppers may be disappointed.

Czech electrical goods retailer Alza focuses on price deals and its homepage shouts this out load and clear, but without seeming too cluttered. Camaïeu offers “all year round low prices” and its homepage has a distinct value image. El Corte Inglés manages to convey the design image associated with its Madrid flagship store, while even on Black Friday Asos still gave an impression of style and excitement while declaring “20% off everything”.

11. Share with friends
While real-world stores experiment with “magic mirrors” that allow shoppers to beam images of themselves in a new outfit to friends or family, sharing purchases – planned or confirmed – is far easier online. Amazon, for example, invites customers to tell a friend what they’ve just bought after every purchase. Many fashion sites allow shoppers to post images of themselves wearing purchases on Instagram, while DIY sites, such as Leroy Merlin, encourage shoppers to interact via a number of forums focused on such topics as decorating or plumbing. At Littlewoods, customers can check on the popularity of any item with details of how many people have bought a particular products in the last 48 hours displayed at the checkout. Customers can also use social media to share news of their purchases.

12. … or something different?

Offering similar products is one approach, but many retailers in the IREU Top500 also suggest add-on lines, such as shoe polish with shoes, or else follow Amazon by highlighting the additional products bought by those who also purchased the item being considered. German retailer Baby-Markt adopts the last two strategies, showing thumbnail images of related products as well as those in the “also bought” category.

Dutch clothing retailer, Miss Etam, offers an odd mix of alternatives as well as add-on items. Look at a dress, for example, and users may also be shown images of a cardigan, coat, vest or another dress to complement a choice. German furniture and household goods retailer XXXL is another that shows a string of products that also attracted “customers that have interest in this article”. Those interests can be eclectic and the selection changes if users return to the page later: looking at a fish frying pan, for example, produced three other pans plus a baby car seat. Returning to the page a few minutes later, the add-ons had changed to two pans, a cake tin and a box of Christmas decorations.

Mentioned in this piece…




Zalando GmbH is a multinational e-commerce company that specialises in selling shoes, clothing and other fashion and lifestyle products online. (more…)

La Redoute

La Redoute


Founded in 1875, La Redoute makes French style accessible to all – with stylish looks and timeless pieces – plus guidance and advice on how to look good. You get a great choice of clothes that fit well and flatter – the way only the French seem to know how. (more…)




Littlewoods is a British clothing retailer offering a range of over 40.000 products, ranging from toys & clothes to electrical goods & sports equipment. (more…)






Amazon is a market-leading eTailer with global reach and a broad array of product types. (more…)



Marks and Spencer

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